(There are some other things – Fun things! – that I will be processing through on this website in the coming months. I am not at liberty to talk about them right now, so for now I am processing through some other stuff. Death stuff. Welcome back to the Haunted Mansion.)
A few months ago we were driving through the neighborhood, on our way to the Goodwill drop off center that is near the vet where we used to take our dogs. It is the same vet office where we said our final goodbyes to each of our dogs. Elijah from the back seat proclaimed, “Look! There’s heaven! Let’s go visit Henry and Juicy!” It took me a moment to find my composure before I explained to my young son that the veterinarian’s office was not, in fact, heaven. Heaven was the next place we go after we die (in contrast to the place where we die. Ugh). But to his mind it made sense … this was the last place he’d seen his beloved Bubba to say goodbye. It was the place we’d said we were taking Juicy because he was “going to heaven.” Gulp. I’d bungled my words and … he’d taken us at our word. I did my best to explain to him what I’d truly meant, even felt relatively satisfied with my response.
*Fast forward several months.*
A friend of ours is in the hospital after a very, very close call. He is an older man, “S”, who has no family. We have – for all intents and purposes – adopted him. Yesterday the whole family went to the hospital to visit him. The older kids squished together in a chair near the foot of the bed with the iPad between them. Lucy slept in the Ergo at my chest. S picked at his Jell-O and watched the kids. It was good medicine for us all.
On the ride home, Elijah asked, “When S gets out of heaven will we get to see him again?” Followed by Sydney’s question, “Is S going to DIE?!” which then led to Elijah asking again, “Where is my Grandfather? (referring to my dad)” and then to “When will *I* die?”
Oh my precious babies. They are so little and they are doing their best to wrap their minds around the very real and present facts of this life. John and I have decided to always tell our kids the truth. People like to poke fun at us for telling our kids that Santa isn’t real (and same goes for that pesky Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy! And don’t pity them, they still get very full stockings, Easter baskets loaded with treats, and they get paid – under the pillow in the traditional way! – when they lose a tooth). But we want our kids to be able to trust us when the time for the Big Questions comes. And in our life, the questions have come early because of, well, just plain old circumstances.
We have had to talk to our kids a lot about what death is, and what it means. They are at different developmental stages. Children cannot understand death as a permanent concept until they are between 6-7 years old, up until that point they understand everything very literally and do not yet understand that when someone dies they will never come back. Like clockwork, when Sydney turned 6.5, we would find her weeping in her room clutching a photo of our dog … who had died a year and a half earlier. It was as if her brain has suddenly grasped the concept that death is permanent. It was crushing as her parents to watch her go through this (and admittedly, we know that some of it was her also processing the death of her friends’ father who was a fixture in our life when he suddenly died). After a few weeks, her grief gradually lessened, but she keeps her photo of Bubba close by and often speaks of missing him … in contrast to our son who talks about “going to see” the dogs and views heaven as a place, rather than an abstract.
I find it all fascinating, as challenging as it is. Before I became a parent I anticipated having difficult conversations about sex and money with my kids when they were older (and I even knew that I would have to explain my father’s death to them, sadly understanding that they would never know him). I never, ever expected that as a parent of young children that this would be so, well, thematic. We don’t talk about it every day, but it comes up often. And in line with our policies on Santa and the Easter Bunny, we try to never, ever brush off the questions with the pat answers parents are so famous for (“because I said so!”). It is a process for all of us. It is a mountain that we are climbing one step at a time.
What are the difficult – albeit productive – ongoing conversations that you have with your children?